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Partying at the Boat Racing Festival

After leaving Kani at the Hmong village last night, I slowly walked back down the dirt road with my head full of thoughts of what it would be like to live in the village in a wooden shack with a dirt floor and a thatched roof. I can't imagine a life like that; it's just so different from anything I have known before.

By the time I reached the hotel, the sun had set and the festival across the street was going on full blast. If there is one word to describe festivals in this part of the word, it would have to be "loud". I was sure there would be a lot of Beer Lao drinking going on as well, but first I needed some dinner.

My hotel is located next to a big lake where the boat racing was taking place during the day, and its restaurant is right next to the water. It makes for a very scenic, rustic place to have a meal. I sat down alone with my thoughts of life in a wooden hut and ordered some noodle soup and a Beer Lao. It wasn't long, though, before I was joined by a couple of Lao men who had been celebrating the festival for quite some time. In other words, they were drunk.

In general, Lao people are friendly, and after a few Beer Lao they are even more friendly. They were both engineers from the capital of Vientiane, and were doing work in Vieng Xai. "I built this road!" one of them proudly told me. "Two Million US dollars. Look at the sidewalks. I designed this road. Before, only dirt!"

They insisted that I come to join them at the festival. As one of them told me, "We drink beer with district chief. The chief he welcome all foreigner to Vieng Xai. Everyone welcome Vieng Xai. You drink beer with district chief. You can not say no to village chief!"

And even though I would be saying no to a couple of drunk Lao guys and not to the District Chief, I decided to go anyway. So I finished my soup and the three of us walked down the beautiful two million dollar road with sidewalks (which we did not use).

When we got to the party I was sat at a table of about ten Lao adults, right next to the village chief. Everyone at the table (except the chief, I think) had been drinking for quite some time, so it was a very festive atmosphere, with several of the Lao ladies professing their love for me and their husbands telling me not to worry, as no one is serious during the festival time.

The District Chief did welcome me, and even though my country was responsible for bombing his village for years many decades ago, he wanted all foreigners to feel comfortable in Vieng Xai, and he hoped that other countries would learn about this area and that the governments would invest in the infrastructure so that even more people could come visit this beautiful place.

The District Chief eventually had to leave the party to go to the main stage that was set up to address the crowd. My drunk engineering friend told me that the governor of the province was here as well, along with his body guards. I asked why he needs guards and a very curious reply came back. He basically said something along the lines of: Unlike Thailand, Lao people love peace. There is never any fighting in Laos, like there is in Thailand right now. No one tries to fight the government. Lao people love peace. If there is anyone who wants to fight the government, they will disappear in one hour. And they will never be found again. Peace is the most important thing to the Lao people.

After a few more rounds of Beer Lao, I was finally able to say my good byes and pull myself away from the table (to much protesting by the locals) and walked back through the festival to my hotel. On the way back, I stopped by a stage that had been set up for a traditional Lao dancing contest. Several groups performed, and their colorful costumes and rhythmic graceful dance was hypnotizing.

It isn't often that I feel completely out of place or feel like I am in another world, but I did tonight. It was the combination of visiting a family who lived in a dirt-floor wooden shack, but still shared food with me when I entered their home, to the engineers who were so proud of their newly paved road and so proud of their Communist government, to the the District Chief who worried about the development of his village, mindful of the ghosts of the past, yet hopeful for the future. All of these images swirled through my head as the colorful dancers slowly slid across the stage, and stayed with me until I finally drifted to sleep under my mosquito net.

(This entry describes my experiences on the night of October 11, 2008.)

hilltribe_children.jpgOn this trip, I will have to do two long bus rides through the mountains. The first was two days ago: A long but very beautiful 8-hour trip to the northeast from Phonsavan to Sam Neua. The entire trip was a roller-coaster ride through the mountains, passing through many hilltribe villages perched on the edges of the cliffs. Every now and then we would stop and the village children would run out to see who was arriving.

Once I arrived in Sam Neua, my original plan was to rent a motorbike and drive 30 kilometers to Vieng Xai to visit the famous Pratet Lao caves. I figured that I could do the trip to Vieng Xai in one (long) day trip on my own. But that turned out to not be the case. I was unable to locate the motorcycle rental shop in Sam Neua and was resigned to try to make the trip alone by songtaew (the truck with benches in the back).

I still had one evening to kill in Sam Neua, so I was wandering around on my own when I met another Hmong hilltribe boy who wanted to practice English with me. His name was Kani, and is first question was to explain what the phrase "It's right under your nose" means. If nothing else, I have learned to sympathize with anyone struggling to learn English idioms!

river_view.jpgWe chatted some more and I told him I was going to Vieng Xai the next day. He said that his sister and brother-in-law lived there, and would love to go visit them and be my tour guide, assuming I could pay for his US$1 bus ticket there and back. I figured this was a small price to pay for a local guide.

He recommended that we make it an overnight trip, so that he could spend some time with his family. So this morning, I packed a small overnight bag, leaving my big backpack at the hotel, and headed to Vieng Xai in the songtaew with Kani.

And what a great move this turned out to be. After I checked into a guesthouse, Kani took me to the Hmong village on the outskirts of town where his family lived. The houses were all one story on the ground, and were made of bamboo with thatched roofs. I have seen houses like this before, but for the first time, I was invited in.

I had to stoop down under the thatched roof to step in, and as soon as I did, the dis-orientation that I felt in the Phonsavan market a few days ago returned, as I stepped into what seemed to be a parallel universe. The floor was hard dirt. There was one small mattress on the floor with a mosquito net above it. At the far end of the house was an open flame fire with a pot on it cooking dinner. And next to the pot in the shadows sat the grandfather of the family, smoking tobacco out of a long bamboo bong.

It's as if I was in a museum: "And here is how the Lao people used to live a hundred years ago. The rice and corn are stored over here, and the pots, fishing nets, and other tools go over here." And then I realized that it really wasn't all that long ago that everyone in the world lived like this.

hmong_house.jpgAs a guest of the home, I was served a glass of water and a strange fruit that I still am not sure what it was. On the outside it looked like a yellow watermelon. On the inside it looked like a cantaloupe. And it tasted like cucumbers. It was very odd, yet is was cool and refreshing; the perfect welcome treat.

I eventually left Kani there with his family and headed back down the dirt path to the town of Vieng Xai. There is a boat racing festival going on, so I plan on checking that out tonight. Tomorrow, Kani will re-join me and we will go visit the Pratet Lao caves. I can hardly wait, as I am expecting tomorrow will be the highlight of my trip.

(This entry describes my experiences on October 10-11, 2008.)

Plain of Jars and Muang Khun

plain_of_jars.jpgThe Plain of Jars is one of northern Laos' biggest tourist attractions. There are three main sites where the mysterious hand-carved rock jars can be found. I like to say it is Laos' version of Stonehenge: no one knows who made the jars, or what they were made for.

I wasn't planning on coming to see the jars, but after struggling to find a decent travel itinerary with my travel agent (I'll spare you the details), they were put back on the list. So after flying into Xieng Kuang Province, and spending the night in the town of Phonsavan, I got up early this morning, rented a motorbike, and headed out into the countryside.

After getting a little lost, and a short rain shower, I finally found the Plain of Jars Site #2. Sure enough, the jars were a bit underwhelming. There were several here scattered around the top of a few hilltops. I must have been the first one to the site that day, for as I approached the jars, a herd of cattle guarding the jars decided that they would wake up and amble off, shooting me dirty looks for interrupting their naps.

But the surrounding countryside was quite amazing. And again, I felt a million miles from the noise of Bangkok. Instead of motorcycles and tuk-tuks and blaring loud speakers and security guard whistles, I heard the wind blowing through the trees, the crickets in the grass, the tinkling of cow bells off in the distance. I stood there on the top of the mountain with my eyes closed, catching the sounds of the valley as they floated past me on the breeze.

Wat Phiawat, destroyed by the US, in Muang Khun, LaosEventually I left the jars on my motorbike and headed down the road a little farther, to the small town of Muang Khun. There, I visited a couple of temples that were destroyed by the US during the Vietnam War. Seeing something like this always makes me a little sad. Whether or not we should have been bombing Laos at the time is debatable, but to see an old Buddhist temple destroyed in the middle of a village shows that there was probably a lot of innocent lives lost.

But that is old history now, and the people of Muang Khun (and the rest of Laos) seem to be looking forward. As I slowly puttered through the town, people smiled and waved at me. And on one dirt road in particular, this one high-school aged boy waved and said hi, and then chased me down on his bicycle.

"Hi, my name is Touher. Can I talk to you?"

A group of Hmong highschoolers in Muang Khun, LaosSure, why not? I was trying to find the way up to an old overgrown stupa at the top of the hill, but couldn't figure out how to get there. So I asked Touher to show me.

We were soon joined by several other boys, and an impromptu English class started. I learned that they were not Lao, but members of the Hmong hilltribe. Not only were they learning English language in school, but were also studying Lao as a foreign language. They were very excited to see an English-speaking foreigner to practice their language skills with.

Eventually I had to say goodbye to Touher and his friends, and the town of Muang Khun and head back to my hotel. I returned the bike, had another great Lao dinner (with more Beer Lao, of course), and went to bed early, along with the rest of the citizens of quiet Phonsavan. I drifted off to sleep wondering what it is like to have to learn two foreign languages at once: Lao for surviving day-to-day life, and English for a hopeful future.

(This entry describes my experiences on October 9, 2008.)

There's no doubt that I love to travel. But I absolutely dread the day before a big trip. It seems that there is always a huge list of things to do before I leave town, and as the departure time gets closer and closer and things are not being checked off the list fast enough, the stress begins to build. And when I am going to a new place in a foreign country and I don't really know what to expect when I arrive and I often get so frazzled that I consider not going at all. It sometimes feels like it just isn't worth it.

The Xiang Kuang Airport outside of Phonesavan, LaosI had that feeling again last night, and luckily I pushed through it. I am standing now in Phonsavan, Laos, a small outpost in Xieng Kuang provice that gets a few tourists going through to see the nearby Plain of Jars, but other than that, doesn't have much to offer. (That's the Xieng Kuang airport, in the image on the left.)

Not much to offer, that is, other than a radical decompression for a frenzied traveller like me. I am walking through an open-air produce market and I consciously notice that the world is moving in slow-motion. Everything and everyone is moving slowly, talking slowly. Slowly picking out the best fresh fruit. Slowly describing and cutting the prime piece of buffalo meat sitting out on the table. Slowly brushing away the flies that are crawling over the plucked, stuffed chickens for sale.

After being in loud, crowded, chaotic Bangkok for months, being in Phonsavan is like being in another dimension. It literally makes me feel dizzy as my brain downshifts (grinding the gears all the way down) into the easy-going pace of my surroundings.

Aside from the surrealism of the slow pace, the market is a facinating experience. I have never seen some of the things that are for sale here. Several vendors are selling huge honeycombs that contain wiggling bee larvae. I ask if they are delicious, and they point to a nearby steamer and offer to cook them for me if I want some. I pass.

Live frogs with one leg tied to a board try to escape from the dinner table, while rows of skinned rats have already met their fate. One big box contains several unknown mammals that are doomed as well. I am still not sure what they were. They were bigger than rats, smaller than cats -- almost looking like big guinea pigs.


Rice fields and mountains in Phonesavan, LaosI didn't buy any of these either.

Instead, for dinner I had an amazingly delicious plate of ginger pork and sticky rice and washed it down with a big bottle of Beer Lao. And this was after getting an excellent massage at the Lao Red Cross. If I had been any more relaxed, I would have been asleep. Relaxed body, ecstatic taste buds, de-stressed mind; it was Nirvana for US$5.

Tomorrow I will rent a motorbike and head out on my own to see the famous Plain of Jars. From what I have read about the jars, my expectations are very low. But I will definitely enjoy exploring the countryside on a motorbike. I haven't done that in quite some time.

(This entry describes my experiences on October 7-8, 2008.)

Pictures from the Mountains of Northern Laos

For the past two weeks, I have been traveling through the mountains of northern Laos. It was a fantastic trip, and I hope I can write about some of my experiences here this week. I spent most of my time in the small towns in Xieng Khuang and Hua Phan provinces, in northeast Laos, near the borders with China and Vietnam.

This part of Laos is very mountainous and very sparsely populated, mostly by various ethnic hilltribe communities and villages. It was also the headquarters of the communist Pratet Lao group (which now controls the country), against whom the US was waging a secret war in the 1960s and 1970s. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this time than in all of Europe during WWII.

I took lots of pictures of course, and have uploaded some of them to my Facebook page. It turns out it was much easier to do it there than to do it here, so feel free to drop by and take a look. Even if you are not a member of Facebook, you can still see my photos from Laos here.

Muang Ngoi Neua

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As usual, I can not stay in the familiar for too long, so I jumped on a bus out of Luang Prabang and into the unknown as soon as possible. The bus took me three hours north, through the mountains to a small village called Nong Kiew. From there, I took a boat up the Ou River to an even smaller village called Muang Ngoi Nuea.

There are no cars in Muang Ngoi Neua, because there are no roads that go there. All transportation is done by river. It will stay this way for a long time, I�m sure, for very tall mountains enclose the village on all sides.

Due to the remoteness, you might imagine that accommodations would be primitive but cheap. You would be right. One night in a bamboo bungalow with an amazing view of the river and the mountains on the other side will set you back US$1 per night.

What do you get for $1? Not much. You get a mosquito net, a thin mattress and blanket, a shared toilet with a big basin of cold water to splash on yourself as a shower substitute, and electricity from a generator from 6-10 PM.

You also get a great view of the green mountains and the river, busy with boats going here and there. You also get roster wake-up calls intermittently starting from around 4 AM.

The village itself has one main dirt road that runs parallel to the river. There are a few restaurants and guesthouses sprinkled along this road, hoping to make a little money from the new found tourism. But, as with the guesthouses, you should expect your meals to be exquisite. Signs outside the restaurants say things like, �Today we have chicken and duck�. Or, even worse, �Today we have buffalo only�. (Not that buffalo is bad; it just limits your menu options.)

It looks like one restaurant taught all of the other restaurants how to cook food for tourists, because they all have exactly the same menu. And they cook the dishes the same way, sometimes in bizarre ways such as adding peanuts and thin noodles to larb gai. And all of them take about 45 minutes to serve your food. Needless to say, the whole dining experience in Muang Ngoi Nuea takes a little bit of getting used to.

But I spent a fabulous two nights there, doing a whole lot of nothing. I did hike about 30 minutes through the jungle to visit a cave, and swam in the Ou River a bit. But other than that, I just walked around and watched the villagers live their life. Or else I laid in my hammock on my bungalow balcony and watched the river go by.

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This post was selected as one of the "Favorite Posts of 2005". To read more "Favorites", then visit Favorite Posts of 2005.

No Launch for Jhai

A few days ago I mentioned the Jhai Foundation's work to build a computer to wirelessly access the Internet from the jungles of Laos. Unfortuately, their hoped-for launch this week didn't happen. They aren't giving up, however, and I am sure they will eventually succeed.

The SF Chronicle has an excellent article on the ups and downs of the project so far.

Making Amends

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coffee_beauty.jpg"Reconciliation is the Opposite of War"

Or so says the Jhai Foundation. I first heard of this group a few weeks ago from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle and I must say that what they are doing is incredibly cool. The group is led by a former Vietnam Vet and his desire and vision to help the people of Laos who he bombed 30 years ago.

The group has two main projects now: 1) helping the Lao farmers grow organic coffee and sell it online, and 2) giving small villages access to the Internet. The second project is the most interesting, I think (even though I did buy some coffee). They have built and are installing a "solid-state, low-wattage computer that can be powered by a foot-crank, a high-bandwidth wireless network, and support for village small businesses." Wow... somone who is actually using technology to improve people's lifes but is not looking to make a profit.

The Jhai Foundation website is a good read for now. We'll see how good the coffee is later.

Vang Vieng

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Yesterday, Rupert and I took a 150 KM 3 hour bus ride to the small village of Vang Vieng, Laos. The bus ride went smoothly, even though the roads were often far from smooth. We stopped a few times at various villages for people to get on or off or to use the bathroom. One time we stopped at a roadside shrine and a young girl got off the bus to leave food and to burn some incense and to pray for a safe journey over the mountains.

I have no idea what this town looked liked 20 years ago when it was just a small fishing village on the banks of the Nam Song, but now it is a backpackers haven. About 80% of the buildings here have something to do with tourism: guesthouses, restaurants, lao massage saunas, tour agencies, laundries, internet cafes. Why the sudden boom? Somehow this little speck on the map has become quite popular. For one thing, it is half-way along the much travelled Vientiane - Luang Prabang route. For another, it is situated on a beautiful river with huge limestone cliffs towering above the grass huts, palm trees and rice fields. Just one more place to spend a wonderful evening drinking Beer Lao and watching the sunset.

There are also a lot of "adventure" tours to take here as well. Kyaking, intertubing, caving, and rock climbing are all available. Once we checked into our $5 a night guesthouse, we had lunch ($3 total for the two of us) and rented innertubes to float down the river. The day was beautiful - a blue sky with fluffy clouds shaped like dragons and buddhas kind of day. It was amazingly peaceful and serene to float under the huge cliffs, past waterbuffalos in the fields and men throwing their fishing nets into the river from long thin wooden boats. As I floated I thought about the people who have lived here in this valley for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. I wondered what it would be like for my whole world to be this river and these cliffs.

Along the way we stopped at a cave with a small stream flowing out of it. We were able to ride our innertubes into the cave and explore around a bit. Very cool.

As we were nearing the town, we started to hear shouting, drum beats and rhythmic whistle blasts. We rounded the last bend in the river to see 5 or 6 long boats with about 20 people in each rowing and racing down the river. When we were in Vietiane a few days ago, everyone was telling us about the annual boat races to be held there next week. So we assumed that we were witnessing Viang Vang's final preparations for that huge event.

We made it back to our hotel room and dried off, then headed out for Beer Lao and dinner by the river at sunset. A mellow end to a very mellow day.

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